When 20 year old New Zealand-Malaysian student Kamal Bamadhaj travelled to East Timor to assist a human rights investigation, his last words to his mother were “I’ll be careful, Mum”. Three weeks later he was dead, shot at point blank range by the Indonesian military.
Televised images of the massacre at Santa Cruz Cemetery in Dili, East Timor, sent shock waves around the world. Kamal Bamadhaj, was among the estimated 271 unarmed East Timorese killed by the occupying Indonesian military.
On 13 November 1991, Helen Todd received a phone call every parent dreads. Her 20 year old son, Kamal, had been injured, shot on a small island the world knew little about – East Timor. The nightmare of the next few days intensified, until finally she was informed of his death, then blocked from travel to the island by the Indonesian authorities.
In her grief, Helen Todd became determined to avenge her son’s death. She eventually found a way to fight the Indonesian Government and those responsible in a landmark international court case. As Kamal’s story unfolds, PUNITIVE DAMAGE is not only a mother’s tale of sorrow, but also a testimony to the brutal reality of Indonesia’s military occupation of East Timor.
Produced and directed by award winning documentary maker Annie Goldson, PUNITIVE DAMAGE is the remarkable story of an idealistic young man, and his mother’s determination and courage to ensure that her son did not die in vain.
A student of history and Indonesian politics at New South Wales University in Australia, Kamal made his first journey to East Timor at 19. One of the first foreigners to visit since the Indonesian invasion of 1975, he was shaken by what he saw. His determination to help an indigenous people on the brink of extermination drew him back there in 1991 on a “secret mission” – but even he could not foresee the dangers that lay ahead.
Helen Todd was devastated by the sudden loss of her son, and by the battle to recover his body. Through her determination to discover the circumstances of his death she learned of the horror that has been East Timor since the Indonesian occupation.
This documentary feature film crosses international and cultural borders in New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, and Malaysia to end up in the United States High Court, as Helen Todd takes on the Indonesian Government in ground breaking legal action. Helen knew her search for justice would be painful. But that she alone, of all those who lost family members during the Dili massacre, could do something about it.
“At least I could speak out against the military officers and military culture that murdered my son. I could bring a lawsuit. And, perhaps the most painful thing of all, at least I have a grave I can go to… somewhere I can take my flowers,” Helen says.
She took every opportunity to present the Timorese case along with her own, and knew Kamal would have wanted even his death to be used to highlight their plight.
Featuring eyewitness accounts from Timorese exiles, and clandestinely shot footage and photographs, the documentary’s evidence against the Indonesian military is damning. PUNITIVE DAMAGE is a story of personal tragedy, and of triumph in exposing the atrocities committed in East Timor. The court case also creates an important precedent in a growing global trend to bring international human rights violators to trial.
Kamal once told his mother that “a just cause is never a lost cause”. The resignation of Indonesian President Suharto in May 1998 in the wake of economic collapse and revelations of corruption and political violence, make Kamal’s words seem prescient. Finally, independence for East Timor appears within reach.